Actions

Work Header

professionalism is... hard

Chapter Text

“That… is not the suit Tony designed."

 

If Natasha hadn’t been trained to repress every emotion, to keep any and all feelings from penetrating the mask of unwavering neutrality she’d clung to since the Red Room, she might’ve choked on the single strawberry she’d plucked from the kitchen (Steve was in there slicing fruits and baking pancakes in an obnoxious star-spangled apron with old-timey tunes playing grandly over the loudspeakers, because Natasha guessed he just wasn’t enough of a cliché to begin with)—and yes, she’d known at least nine paces beforehand that Wanda’s soft distinct footsteps were set on the perfect collision course with her own, so it wasn’t a surprise when she turned the next corner to find the young witch mid-stride just feet away from her, but she definitely hadn’t accounted for… that.

 

Most mornings (it was 8:42am, last Natasha had checked), Wanda wore ridiculously tiny black silken shorts and a loose graphic tee (the past couple mornings it’d been ‘Def Leppard,’ which she supposed she had Tony to thank for Wanda’s newfound partiality towards rock music), her chestnut-brown hair falling messily over either shoulder, those wide ocean-blue eyes blinking drowsily in the light of day (which, to be fair, was something Natasha was by no means immune to), but today… Well.

 

And perhaps Natasha should've prefaced this by explaining the whole ‘suit’ predicament (too late now, she supposes), because it’s not like Wanda was standing there in sensual lingerie (which, Natasha will admit she’d vividly imagined on more than one occasion) or anything terribly promiscuous—it was skin-tight black leather pants and a scarlet bodice with a sinfully-low sweetheart neckline (when Cap saw it, Natasha was sure his heated blush would reach the tips of his ears), supplemented by a long flowing red-leather jacket that swished hypnotically around her calves as she walked…

 

(It also wasn’t all that helpful that Wanda was a good three inches taller than Natasha to begin with, and both women were barefoot at that particular moment, affording Natasha a generous eyeful of Wanda’s ample breasts, which by all accounts looked as if they were trying to literally escape over the low V-shaped neckline of the bodice altogether.)

 

What’s more, Natasha prided herself on her ability to exercise control over both body and mind: sadness, happiness, rage, fear… lust.

 

Maybe once upon a time (though she can scarcely remember it) she’d allowed childlike and trivial emotion to yank her strings, forced to bare herself like a doll-faced marionette before hundreds of onlookers watching silently from their seats, every soul in the audience being allowed to know her in a way that made her feel sick.

 

No—Natasha hadn’t been a performer onstage for a very long time.

 

And still, Natasha felt inexplicably lost for a moment (though her training ensured she’d never let Wanda see it) like she was back in the theatre, suddenly experiencing considerable difficulty in attempting to form a coherent thought as she stood there feeling a tad underdressed in tight black spandex and a loose tank with David Bowie’s likeness stamped across the front.

 

She knew she didn’t look bad, per se; she could feel Wanda staring appreciatively at her form (the young witch was never all that subtle—Natasha had known for weeks that Wanda was attracted to her), but she wasn’t quite sure if that made the whole thing better or worse.

 

“You do not like it?” Wanda questioned eventually in her heavily-accented drawl, eyes finally coming up to meet Natasha’s.

 

Natasha’s lips twitched. “You know that’s not what I mean.”

 

(Weeks ago, Steve had informed Natasha she’d be training Wanda in hand-to-hand combat until further notice; no exceptions.

 

Natasha hadn’t been planning to argue, even if she wasn’t all that thrilled at his request: She trusted Steve to a certain degree, and what’s more, she could easily see the sense of asking Natasha to train Wanda… similar body types, a vaguely analogous history in Slavic regimes, the fact that they were both slim attractive women that many men tended to underestimate at first glance.

 

So it wasn’t ideal that Natasha now had to routinely pin the object of her current affections to the mats with various moves that held undoubtedly sexual undertones, but she got over it fairly quickly.

 

It still wasn’t easy to clamp down on Wanda’s unsuspecting neck with the steely grip of her thighs, ultimately ending the move with Wanda squirming on the floor between Natasha’s legs, her mouth mere inches away from Natasha’s—

 

Well. Let’s just say it wasn’t easy, and leave it at that.

 

To be clear, though, she wasn’t some inexperienced pre-teen boy in the midst of puberty who couldn’t control his raging hormones and seemingly endless libido—no, she was a professional.

 

But unfortunately, professionalism didn’t account for mind-reading, or whatever Hill had called Wanda’s neural-interface-hocus-pocus-voodoo in her polished scientific jargon—because all it took was one mistake on Wanda’s part, which, since the girl hadn’t the faintest clue on how to throw a proper punch, were never in short supply, and suddenly, everything went to shit.

 

“No powers” had been something of a rule from the very start; she’d seen Wanda become too overwhelmed to summon her magic at times, and lose control of those glowing red tendrils entirely at others—despite her reluctance to be the younger woman’s mentor, she knew Wanda needed to learn to defend herself without the use of her powers, especially if she wanted to continue being a part of the Avengers.

 

Sometimes Wanda’s eyes would flash red while they trained, or crimson energy would gather around her clenched fists when Natasha would hit her with a particularly swift blow, but they were two weeks into training, and Natasha hadn’t yet been hex-blasted through the walls—by all accounts, things seemed to be going rather well.

 

She supposed it made sense that such a thing wouldn’t last, because Natasha Romanoff had learned quite early on that she didn’t get “good” days.

 

She didn’t think of it as some blatant injustice in the universe, either; she deserved it for all the lives she’d taken, for the bloodstained corpses she can’t remember leaving behind, for living this life not as a person, but rather as a weapon, and a dangerous one at that.

 

So, to be fair, she was only marginally surprised when the consequence one particular day for knocking Wanda off her feet with a fleet-footed sweep kick was an immediate implosion of red behind the assassin's eyes and a throbbing pain in her skull, followed quickly by Wanda's blinding scarlet presence as it filled her mind once again with devastating efficiency.

 

Almost instantaneously, she found herself thrown violently into hordes of her own fragmented memories and half-baked dreams, unable to escape even as she cursed silently and braced herself for another nightmare-inducing invasion of privacy.

 

She saw snow falling peacefully in St. Petersburg even as she stood stiffly above a bloodstained corpse lying deep in a pink-tinted snowbank, his pleas for mercy having tapered off just minutes before; she saw Madame B. coldly examining her trembling stance with a critical gaze, demanding that Natalia control her pathetic weakness and pull the trigger; she saw a younger and dull-eyed Natalia lying limp beneath a heavy and pungent-smelling man whose face was constantly changing to that of her countless marks, to the sadistic male instructors of the Red Room, his hairy body snapping hard against her hips with every thrust.

 

The memories came faster after that—she could feel Wanda’s fear, a kind of anxiety in her chest that didn’t belong to her, because the young witch was still there but trying with everything she had not to be, to control the reach of her magic and get the hell out of Natasha’s head.

 

Flashes of Clint’s kind blue eyes, of Yelena’s blood staining the snow, of the times she’d see Alexei’s face in her dreams, of Sao Paulo up in flames, of Pietro lying lifeless amidst the wreckage of Sokovia… and then Wanda—she was there.

 

Not anything but a figment in Natasha’s mind, but she was there just the same, giggling nose-to-nose with her long arms curled around the redhead’s back as the two stumbled fully-clothed into the mess of sheets on Natasha’s bed and—

 

And then it was gone—all of it.

 

She re-entered reality, drenched in cold sweat on the mats of the gym, gasping for air even as she could hear Wanda doing the same a couple paces away.

 

She ended training early that day, forcing herself to walk evenly out the door with a hell of a lot more self-assuredness than she felt, leaving a crestfallen Wanda in her wake.

 

Natasha had been cold and dismissive with Wanda for weeks after that, even despite the young witch’s numerous attempts to apologize—nightmares plagued her even more than she considered to be normal, so she didn’t sleep, preferring to train for hours instead; she couldn’t stop seeing their faces everywhere… Yelena, Oksana, Phil, Alexei, Wanda.

 

She’d kept it up for weeks, still showing up to training sessions with Wanda but remaining distinctly detached each time she threw the girl down to the mats, offering only the occasional tip for improvement in a decidedly flat tone, anything to keep her distance even as their bodies pressed fully against one another’s in sparring—until Steve had come to her one day in all his self-righteous fury, saying Wanda had come to his quarters crying because she thought Natasha hated her, and like it or not she was a part of the team and “Fix this now, Romanoff.”

 

She did.

 

She didn’t let her walls down again, but she obeyed Steve’s command—and over the next couple of months, she’d grown into something of a tentative friendship with the Sokovian girl.

 

They never spoke about Natasha’s memories, about Russia, about her feelings toward Wanda.

 

It laid there beneath the surface in every interaction, but Natasha had resolved never to let Wanda close enough that she felt she could ask.

 

The assassin didn’t ignore it, of course—the last thing she needed was to willingly fork over yet another piece of her for Wanda’s ammunition, because the powerful young witch knew far too much already, things that made her feel vulnerable in a way she hadn’t been for a very long time.

 

Wanda knew more than Clint, Phil, and Nick combined, for Christ’s sake.

 

Natasha couldn’t afford to give her anything more.)

 

Wanda paused for a moment back in the hallway at Natasha’s comment, obvious confusion playing on her features. “I thought we did not talk about that.”

 

A suppressed prickle of annoyance sparked in Natasha’s chest even as her expression remained perfectly composed. “We aren’t.”

 

“But I would like to.” Wanda said the words quietly, wide blue eyes tentatively searching Natasha’s as if pleading for something—a sign of surrender, Natasha guessed.

 

She should say “No”—she knew she should, the single syllable already half-formed on her tongue… but the way Wanda was gazing as if trying to see her to her very bones, precious vulnerability and something like sincerity showing across smooth pale features while mesmerizing ocean-blue irises pleaded wordlessly with her to reconsider—Christ, it was effective.

 

She made a mental note to request a new mission from Phil as soon as possible, preferably as far away from New York as he could manage.

 

“Maybe,” she found herself answering like she wasn’t going to hate herself for it later, suppressing the urge to smile when Wanda’s bright cerulean eyes immediately lit up in response, pink lips stretching into a wide grin that bared perfectly straight white teeth, and Fuck if that didn’t make it a great deal harder for Natasha to act like she didn’t care.

 

(Not impossible, mind you—she’s known for a long time that honesty for honesty’s sake is like announcing your hand of cards well before the game has even begun, which is a goddamned mistake in every sense of the word, no matter the comfort so much of the population seem to find in their belief that such transparency holds virtue.

 

And maybe they’re right to some degree about that, but the rules of her game are different—they always have been.

 

Maybe it’s safe for the hopelessly-square all-American businessman working 40-hour weeks to lose the game, because for him, losing the game means marital problems and having to fire the maid and company stocks dipping from day to day—losing the game for people like Natasha is another matter entirely.

 

So she never slips—she thinks it’d actually be harder to do that than to maintain her perpetually aloof facade.

 

Even with Wanda, she doesn’t slip.

 

But she’s consciously been genuine with her—too genuine, she thinks, because it’s a distinct possibility that she’s really starting to care, and granted it’s nowhere near her loyalty to Clint or Phil or Nick, but she knows damn well that even the oscillating state of caring is just asking for trouble, for things to get a lot messier than they need to be.

 

It's like asking to become compromised, and she’d like to think she’s not stupid enough to invite another complication so willingly into her bloodied state of being, especially when that complication is a damaged young witch in her mid-twenties who just lost her other half and actually seems to be struggling with that grief in an impressively human kind of fashion.

 

It’s practically textbook, Wanda’s mourning: outbursts of anger, inability to control her own rage, retreating further into herself, becoming a small and quiet presence on the sidelines.

 

It means that she’s still human, that she’s still whole—that she didn’t let Ultron break her.

 

Natasha can’t remember ever being whole.

 

There are too many reasons that she shouldn’t let warmth spill through her chest when Wanda smiles her way, and only one or two selfish ones for why she should.

 

But emotions don’t rule her any more—she’s spent every moment of forever making that statement breed true, and she’ll be damned if she lets up now for a stupid crush.

 

No, she needs to stop letting Wanda worm her way past Natasha’s self-inflicted isolation.

 

She can’t afford to be compromised again.

 

She’s going to ask Phil for a long-term overseas mission, she decides, and she’s not going to leave until she has one that’s at least a 6 month requirement.)

 

“Okay,” Wanda replied with that stupidly big grin (though Natasha didn’t find it stupid at all; she found it absolutely adorable ). “Training later?”

 

Natasha fought the urge to crumble at the openly hopeful look in Wanda’s gaze. “Yep,” she said casually, before narrowing her eyes playfully at the taller woman. “Don’t be late.”

 

If at all possible, Wanda’s grin grew wider at that (Dammit, Romanoff, Natasha’s brain cursed), a slight sort of distance in cerulean-blue eyes, most likely recalling the last time she’d been late (6 minutes to be exact) and Natasha had ordered her to run 6 miles for her tardiness, one for every minute. “I will not again be making that mistake anytime soon,” the young witch spoke with a chuckle.

 

Natasha allowed her lips to quirk almost imperceptibly upwards. “Good. Steve’s making pancakes, by the way.”

 

Wanda’s eyes widened comically like saucers. “Really?

 

“I guess you’ll just have to see for yourself.”

 

She despised the faint but unmistakably tender glow of affection that grew beneath her ribcage as she watched the girl spring excitedly into action, hurrying down the hallway and around the corner, hair flowing gracefully behind her in her hasty search for the pancakes Natasha had spoken of.

 

Fuck.

 

When she got back to her quarters, she pried open a single floorboard with practiced ease (and a thin silver metallic gadget she kept on her person at all times), crouching cat-like on the wooden floor as she dialed one of two cellular numbers she knew by heart.

 

Putting the cheap burner phone deftly up to her ear, she remained perfectly still while it rung twice, something like relief pulsing in her chest when a soft click! came over the line.

 

“Romanoff?”

 

“Hey Phil. I need a favor.”

Chapter Text

Clint Barton, by all accounts, was having a fairly good day.

 

(Though, to be fair, every day since Budapest could probably be qualified as ‘good’ in comparison, since nothing, not even the alien invasion on New York, had managed to come even remotely close to the complete and utter clusterfuck that was his and Tasha’s mission during those fateful weeks in the north of Hungary.

 

But still—a good day, nonetheless.)

 

He’d gone down to the gun range (which Stark had so kindly retrofitted to include a small zone for archery, encouraging him to “Have a ball, Legolas!” once it was finished and snickering loudly at his own quip, because the tech genius thought he was about three times funnier than he actually was) and shot up countless targets with devastating accuracy, including a few trick shots for his own personal enjoyment.

 

(Tasha would always roll her eyes at him whenever he showed her his newest sleight of hand—or arrow, as it were.

 

She’d insist they were ‘pointless’ and ‘childish,’ even as her lips quirked with telltale amusement—he always argued back saying you never quite knew when you’d find yourself in need of an upside-down trick shot, or a scissor-kick-arrow-through-the-skull combo, or even a no-hands-only-teeth draw on his beloved recurve bow, so really, he was the responsible one here, and she was the one that was slacking.

 

In response, she’d just let out an amused huff of breath every time, rolling her eyes once more before returning her focus to the perfect cluster of bullet holes on her target.)

 

Then he’d gone to the kitchen for lunch, where Steve was preparing burgers and hot dogs in his star-spangled apron, like the red-blooded all-American Brooklyn-raised boy he was.

 

(For all his and Tasha’s teasing, he had to admit that Steve’s cooking was nothing short of heavenly.)

 

After gorging himself on three cheeseburgers and two-and-a-half hot dogs (he’d begrudgingly offered Bruce the other half, dying quietly inside when the man happily accepted), he padded up to his quarters on the 8th level of Avengers Tower, more than ready to slip into a blissful food coma for the rest of the afternoon.

 

Now, Clint liked to think that he was very attuned with each of his senses, even with the hearing aids he only ever took out to sleep—so maybe he should’ve realized right away when he entered his quarters that something was wrong, that there was someone there, but give him a break, alright?

 

As it was, he’d poured himself his daily glass of OJ, unwrapped a grape-juice popsicle (his favorite) to suck on, and was well on his way to bed when the hairs on the back of his neck abruptly stood up, and he was whirling instantly around, freezing purple popsicle still shoved far into his mouth and glass of OJ steadfastly in hand, wide blue eyes landing on none other than an amused Natasha crouched delicately upon the arm of his (Stark’s) sleek leather sofa, her green eyes glinting in that ominous way that seemed to say ‘I know something you don’t’ as she fixed him with her toothy Cheshire-cat-grin, the kind that might arouse a stupid man, but just made Clint feel as if he might shit his pants from fear.

 

(He prided himself on never having been idiotic enough to think that that terrifying expression meant anything except serious fucking trouble for whoever was unlucky enough to find themselves on its receiving end.)

 

Trying to speak but finding himself unable (what with the grape popsicle so ungracefully jammed halfway down his throat), Natasha quirked a brow as Clint scrambled to extract the unnaturally-sweet iced obstruction from his mouth, barely managing to sputter a weak “Hey, gorgeous” while he attempted to recover from his shock with deep gasping breaths of air (which only seemed to entertain the redhead even further—so not helpful).

 

“You’re lucky I’m not here to kill you,” she said after a minute, her head tilted as she smirked at him.

 

“You know, people knock in this country,” he retorted, his voice a tad gravelly and hoarse. “It’s common courtesy.”

 

She rolled her eyes. “And you’re lucky I haven’t broken all your bones and marooned you in Madagascar for being a loose-lipped jackass—see? I can do common courtesies.”

 

Clint took another generous lick of his popsicle, making a show of squinting his eyes in a skeptical expression. “Somehow, I don’t think we’re talking bout the same thing here.”

 

“Would you prefer the Madagascar option?”

 

“I was more referring to the ‘loose-lipped jackass’ part, but while we’re on the topic, I’d definitely rather you didn’t.”

 

Natasha pouted. “Buzzkill.”

 

“So?” Clint prompted, eyeing Natasha warily. “‘Loose-lipped jackass’?”

 

Her gaze narrowed. “I talked to Phil about getting a new mission. He said no.”

 

Clint hummed, drawing a tangy gulp of OJ from his glass. “So why aren’t you scaring the cheese out of him right now?”

 

Natasha’s brow furrowed. “Cheese?”

 

“It’s an expression,” Clint said dismissively.

 

“It’s not.”

 

“It is.”

 

“Not.”

 

“Is?”

 

“Is that a question?”

 

“No…"

 

“Hey, FRIDAY? Is—"

 

“Alright, alright!” Clint conceded. “Fine—I just made it up. But seriously, Tash… why am I getting the Babadook Treatment?”

 

Natasha wrinkled her nose. “I’m not even gonna ask about this… Babadook. But Phil said he wouldn’t give me a mission until I figured out my ‘personal issues.’”

 

Ah. Clint was starting to form an idea as to what this was all about.

 

“Maybe he wants you to get a date,” Clint mused thoughtfully, licking his ice pop absentmindedly. “It’s been a while since you’ve had one of those."

 

Natasha glared. “I don’t need a date.”

 

“Why don’t you ask Wanda?” he asked, completely ignoring her rebuttal. "I’m sure she’d be more than happy to accompany you.”

 

“Wanda’s not interested.”

 

“Isn’t she?”

 

Natasha pursed her lips (though Clint knew very well that every readable emotion on her face was meticulously planned, that Natasha was only allowing him to see what she wanted him to see—but years of partnership didn’t amount to nothing, because Clint had grown adept enough to occasionally extract the the words she refused to say, to make sense here and there of the cracks in her iron-clad facade). “You told him that, didn’t you?”

 

Clint blinked, feigning innocence. “Told him what?”

 

“About Wanda.”

 

“I may have mentioned it.”

 

“I’m gonna kill you. And your boyfriend.”

 

“That's cute.”

 

Natasha didn’t move a muscle, just stared him down with an intense green-eyed gaze. “Tell him I’m fine.”

 

“Tell him that yourself.”

 

“He won’t believe it, not if it comes from me.”

 

“Maybe he shouldn’t.”

 

“I don’t need a date, Clint.”

 

“But you like Wanda,” he stated. It wasn’t a question.

 

“I like a lot of people.”

 

“Funny.”

 

“Fine.” Natasha let out a small and almost imperceptible sigh. “So what if I did?”

 

“Then you should ask her out.”

 

“Now you’re the one being funny.”

 

Clint fought the urge to roll his eyes. “I’m being serious.”

 

“Hi, Being Serious! I’m Dad.”

 

"That was awful,” he grumbled, even as an affectionate grin tugged at his lips. “Since when do you make Dad jokes?"

 

The ghost of a smirk flickered across Natasha’s bare-faced features, but she didn’t offer up a response.

 

There was silence for a moment, then—comfortable, companionable quiet that Clint had grown to cherish throughout the many years of their partnership as he lapped eagerly at his popsicle.

 

Eventually, though, Natasha spoke: “Your boyfriend’s a meddling jackass.”

 

“Yeah,” Clint replied in an intentionally dreamy tone, sipping his OJ contentedly. “He is, isn’t he?”

 

“I’m gonna barf.”

 

“You know, this whole thing is quite fixable.”

 

“I’m not going to ask out Wanda.”

 

“Why not?”

 

“Because I’ll fuck it up,” Natasha murmured with a sigh, the woman allowing an exceptionally rare kind of sincerity to seep into her words.

 

Clint approached her slowly then, sadness in his eyes. “Tash, how can you possibly know that?”

 

She didn’t reply, just breathed evenly with both bare knees tucked tightly against her chest, looking wholly unbothered and perfectly relaxed as she sat—but Clint knew better.

 

He also knew she’d clam up if he tried pushing any further.

 

“Wanna take a nap?” he asked instead, having taken notice of the tired look beneath her eyes from the start—she hadn’t been sleeping lately, he knew, not since the shipyard with Ultron and Wanda (before they’d convinced the powerful but inexperienced Sokovian to fight with them rather than against them) where the young witch had delved forcibly into her bloodied past, the one she’d been running from since long before Clint defied orders and un-nocked his arrow on that fateful night in Vladivostok.

 

He suspected something similar had happened in the past week or so, because Natasha’s sleep cycle (or lack thereof), which, to be fair was rather fucked to begin with (just like his), had taken something of a nosedive recently—and that was just the part that he could see.

 

(He’d have like to think he knew Natasha well by then, and, to a certain extent, he thought it was reasonable to say that he did.

 

But still, he saw only what she allowed him to see, and precious little more than that—that’s how it had always been.)

 

To his relief, she nodded slowly, then began a graceful dismount from her crouched position upon the arm of his couch.

 

He smiled. “Want some OJ first?"

Chapter Text

It’s 3:04am, and Natasha wakes drenched in a cold sweat, fingers curled tightly around the throwing knife she keeps under her pillow as she holds it defensively in the air against multiple invisible attackers, her breaths coming in short heaving gasps.

 

A second later the realization dawns that there’s no one there, that she’s dreaming again, and she wants to hit something as unforgiving memory crawls deeply under her skin, every regret ripping through her like a molten blade, her mind flashing with jagged fragments of Alexei and Madame B. and Yelena and Pietro and Wanda.

 

Wanda.

 

She knows better than to blame the girl for the fact that she hasn’t slept in two weeks (not since their most recent mind-reading incident in training), though she’s not nearly blind enough to miss the obvious correlation between the two events—she’s sure if she were anyone else, if she weren’t a cold-blooded murderer with thousands of crossed-out names on her list, she’d be feeling a burning anger directed solely towards the young impressionable witch right now.

 

But as it is, she doesn’t.

 

No, instead she feels… well, it’s most always difficult to decipher what she feels, with every emotion forever hidden beneath decades’ worth of ingrained indifference to any and all inclinations beyond a drive to kill, to fight, to succeed.

 

(It’s exhausting.)

 

But she’s gotten better lately at discerning what lies beneath the hardened marble in her veins, and right now she thinks she feels… wistful, almost. Like she wants Wanda here, with her, even as she knows that that’s quite possibly the most ridiculous thought she’s had in a while.

 

What’s more, she’s not sure if it makes her more fucked up or less.

 

(She thinks it’s probably the former.)

 

For a moment, she sits silently upright in her bed, sheets messily piled around her, focusing intently on regulating her breathing and heartbeat safely back within normal parameters—briefly, she debates digging out a pair of handcuffs and chaining herself to the headboard like they used to do in the Red Room.

 

She’s aware it’d be a massive backslide in the progress (if she can even call it that) she’s made since leaving Russia, but honestly, she’s not quite sure that anything else will reasonably work—ultimately, she decides she’ll try again tomorrow night, and if things go south again, she’ll try the cuffs.

 

(After all, it’s only a matter of time before the lack of sleep inevitably begins to affect her efficiency in the field, and she can’t have that.)

 

Knowing very well she won’t be able to go back to sleep after this (not with her mind warring violently against itself, not with phantom gunshots and explosions ringing in her ears), she slips soundlessly out of bed, knife tucked securely into her sleep shorts, then pads quietly down the hall and towards the kitchen.

 

She’s at least 30 paces away when she hears the sound of someone currently occupying the kitchen; 25 when the soft pattering and rhythmic movements tell her it’s Wanda who’s awake right now, bustling quietly around the common areas.

 

She briefly debates turning back for half a second, because she knows damn well she’s going to end up being a hell of a lot more honest than she should with the girl—but after a moment’s hesitation, she steels herself and decisively presses forward, padding noiselessly into the dimly lit space where Wanda is humming to herself (Adorable, Natasha thinks) and fixing a kettle of hot water on the stove, presumably for the herbal tea she loves so much.

 

(Chamomile, steaming hot—no sugar and a dash of milk.)

 

“Morning,” she says lowly, grinning inwardly as Wanda abruptly starts, the notes to her upbeat tune dying in her throat as she whirls to face Natasha, wide blue eyes blinking owlishly in the early hours of morning.

 

“N-Nat!” she practically squeaks, and Natasha pointedly ignores the warmth that gathers in her chest at that. “I-I mean—Natasha!”

 

Natasha chuckles, moving towards the girl (delighting in the clear interest in Wanda’s gaze as she tracks Natasha’s approach) and hefting herself smoothly onto the opposite counter. “Nat’s fine,” she tells her, loving the pretty pink blush that spreads across Wanda’s pale cheeks in response.

 

(Internally, she lauds herself for wearing only a skimpy red tank top—foregoing a bra—and short black silken sleep shorts that nearly match the tiny scrap of fabric covering Wanda’s pert butt, because with the way Wanda’s looking at her, entirely unhindered interest sparkling in cerulean-blue eyes, Natasha knows she looks good.)

 

There’s a somewhat charged silence for a moment, the low hissing of the boiling water the only sound in the spacious area—Wanda, for her part, looks adorably nervous, fiddling with the silver rings on her fingers and biting her bottom lip anxiously; eventually, Natasha takes pity on her.

 

“'The Clash’?” she questions bemusedly to break the silence, flicking her gaze down to the loose black tee swallowing Wanda’s lithe frame (Natasha can barely see the hem of her obscenely under-sized sleep shorts) and slipping delectably off of one pale shoulder, its chest boldly emblazoned with the band’s title and the artwork of one of their earlier albums.

 

Wanda’s flush deepens. “Y-Yes, I—I have listened to them quite a lot recently.”

 

“Tony?” Natasha questions knowingly, quirking a brow.

 

Wanda’s lips quirk. “Bruce, actually.”

 

Natasha allows a surprised grin to overtake her features, both brows incrementally raised.

 

“So there’s a bit of a rebel in him, after all,” she muses aloud, her heart skipping a beat at the wide toothy smile Wanda gives her in response.

 

Then Wanda’s nervously biting her lip again, as if wanting to ask something but not quite knowing how—Natasha just leans imperceptibly into her seated position, more than willing to wait her out.

 

After a minute, Wanda breaks: “You are up early,” she states, her gaze shy but curious.

 

“You are too.”

 

Wanda swallows and nods, thin fingers fiddling again with the rings on her hands. “May I ask why?”

 

Natasha internally debates for half a second, before she’s deciding to be honest (which, dammit, she knew this was a bad idea).

 

“Couldn’t sleep.”

 

“Because of me?” Wanda prods hesitantly after a moment, her expression visibly crestfallen.

 

Natasha ignores the pang of something like righteous anger swirling in her stomach, and instead just allows the ghost of a smirk to form on her lips (which, by the way Wanda’s earnest gaze immediately dart down from her eyes, was a very prudent decision).

 

“Don’t flatter yourself, little witch,” she quips, though she takes care to make it gentle (hence the term of endearment), her tone laced with no real anger or malice. “You’ve caught glimpses of my past. It wasn’t pretty to begin with.”

 

No matter the neutrality that carries in Natasha’s words, they quite apparently hit Wanda like sucker punches to the gut, if the queasy expression on her pretty features is anything to go by.

 

“I-I know, I just—" she stops herself, regret shining clearly in sea-blue irises. “I am sorry, Natasha.”

 

Natasha wants desperately to brush it off, and in any other situation she might have, but Wanda's gaze is just so desperately vulnerable and pleading, and Natasha knows damn well she’s been weak for the girl since the day they met (the day they truly met, because she doesn’t exactly count the blitz attack into her mind at the shipyard as a real ‘meeting’)—allowing a rare sort of gentleness to seep into her voice, she shakes her head, looking intently at Wanda in such a way that the girl can’t doubt that Natasha means it when she says:

 

“You’re forgiven, Wanda. You have been for a while.”

 

Wanda still looks troubled, her brows stitched together and lips pursed in concentration—the very picture of confusion.

 

“Even after… after training?”

 

Natasha fights the sudden ache penetrating her skull at the reminder of Wanda’s presence forcibly entering her mind (again) mid-swing—forcing herself to focus (it’s not all that hard; her training makes sure of that) on Wanda’s openly concerned expression, she tilts her head thoughtfully.

 

“Yes, little witch. Even after training.”

 

Instantly, Wanda’s eyes light up (Like a kid on Christmas, Natasha thinks, though she still remains rather confused at the American expression Clint so often uses), and it eases something deep in Natasha’s chest, something she can’t quite name, something she hadn’t known she’d been struggling with until now.

 

Wanda opens her mouth to speak then, but she’s interrupted by the shrill whistle of the kettle on the stove—flushing cutely, she turns hastily to shut the burner off, moving the steaming kettle deftly onto a small dish towel laid across the granite countertop with halted movements.

 

A second later, she’s turning back to Natasha with wide, hopeful eyes. “Would you like a cup?”

 

Natasha amusedly huffs out a breath of air at her precious eagerness, relishing in the way Wanda’s rosy blush immediately deepens across delicate cheekbones.

 

“Chamomile?”

 

Wanda’s smile brightens at Natasha’s remembrance. “Yes."

 

“I’d love some.”

 

— —

 

Something shifts between them after that—Natasha’s not foolish enough to try and convince herself otherwise.

 

Their moments together become more charged, more wrought with an inexplicable sort of tension—a very different kind from before, and if she didn’t know it before she damn well knew it now: she’s in trouble. Bad.

 

And it’s all because of Wanda Maximoff.

Chapter Text

Things get worse (or better?) on a Tuesday night (or a Wednesday morning, really, since the clock reads 1:39am)—Natasha is awake (she most always is) in her quarters, the lights out, her right wrist cuffed firmly to the metal slats of the headboard, and as always, sleep is frustratingly elusive… and she hears it.

 

A muffled cry, a whimpered, “Please” drifting through the walls—it’s Wanda, Natasha deduces in the space of about a second.

 

It’s Wanda, and it must be bad if she can hear it so easily, because Natasha’s room is three doors down from Wanda’s—Fuck, she thinks, already un-cuffing herself and scrambling to her feet, mindless of her dress (or lack thereof—a tight black tank sans a bra and short white pajama shorts).

 

Seconds later, she’s padding soundlessly down the corridor, then placing a listening ear to Wanda’s closed wooden door and—Yep, definitely her.

 

(Not that there was any reason for Natasha to be mistaken—she almost never is.)

 

In the blink of an eye she’s letting herself in, her heart clenching in her chest at what she finds—Wanda thrashing vigorously in the darkness, sheets a mess around her, sweat dotting her forehead; and of course (of course), such movement have caused her graphic Def Leppard tee to bunch at her armpits, leaving her ample breasts topped with pert rosy-pink nipples and sinfully tight pale stomach on display with the waistband of her silken black sleep shorts sagging low beneath either hipbone; the expanse of exposed skin revealed to her in the fluorescent moonlight is enough to make her positively dizzy with desire, even as she knows she’s being a pervy asshole for thinking these thoughts while Wanda is very clearly struggling in her fugue state.

 

Focus, Romanoff, she scolds herself, carefully approaching the violently tossing form of Wanda upon the sheets.

 

“Wanda,” she tries softly, really doing her best to avoid touching the girl and thereby being forced to experience yet another impromptu field trip through her own unequivocal mess of a brain, because while Wanda may be forgiven for her past two unsolicited mind-bends, Natasha really isn’t quite sure she can handle another one so hot on the heels of the first two.

 

Wanda’s whines continue, her brows furrowed and forming a deep troubled crease in her forehead—

 

“Wanda,” Natasha tries again, louder this time.

 

Nothing.

 

“Wanda.”

 

Fuck.

 

Wanda.”

 

Nothing—just more incoherent whimpering.

 

Okay, so verbal cues weren’t working. Splendid.

 

Looks like she’d have to try poking the sleeping beast, in the figurative sense (sort of).

 

Clenching her jaw and bracing for a blow, she placed a hand on the girl’s shoulder, slightly jarred by the feeling of cold skin beneath her fingertips as she shakes it gently and—

 

Instantly, she’s thrown back with glowing red tendrils of energy and a loud accompanying Crash! as her body slams hard into the splintering glass of Wanda’s window, the energy not relenting its powerful forwards momentum; suddenly, she’s flown unceremoniously outside the tower in a cloud of luminous crimson, bitingly cold wind whistling through her ears, goosebumps rising unbidden upon her skin—mid-fall, she takes note of the trunk of a thick old oak tree in her path, one she’s going to hit in Three, Two, O

 

Thwack! She digs her throwing knife deep into the bark as her body hits against it with a sickening thud, wincing when her downwards momentum is rapidly halted by the newfound anchor, the pull on her arm excruciating—vaguely, she feels her shoulder being ripped from its socket, dislocated in the most painful of ways even whilst she grits her teeth and steadies herself against the trunk with her uninjured arm, then pulls herself up and over it in an acrobatic movement, only allowing herself to breathe once she’s crouched catlike upon one of its thicker branches, the pain in her shoulder ebbing to a dull ache as she assesses the situation.

 

She’s about 20 feet off the ground, she gathers (though the darkness makes for roughly a five-foot margin of error), her knife still embedded in the trunk just an arm’s length away (she yanks it out with a sharp exhale as the movement jostles her dislocated shoulder), and, judging by the panicked gasps and strangled “Natasha!”’s from above, the little witch is now awake and quickly becoming aware of the less-than-ideal situation.

 

Wonderful, she thinks sardonically to herself as she tucks her knife safely back into the waistband of her shorts.

 

Idly, she eyes the tree trunk above her and the windows of Avengers Tower, slowly becoming more visible as her eyes grow used to the pitch darkness—it’s possible for her to scale upwards, of course, and re-enter the little witch’s bedroom that way, but it’s rather a lot of work, especially when the alternative is simply dropping to the ground and calling for FRIDAY to let her in the normal way.

 

Shifting upon the branch, she braces her dislocated shoulder against the trunk, not bothering to count to three before she’s snapping it back in with a rather unsavory noise, letting out a quiet huff of pain even whilst she moves swiftly on to begin planning her dismount.

 

A second later, she’s ready, climbing soundlessly down to a lower and thicker branch just shy of 10 feet down—and without further ado, she’s jumping to the ground, dropping instinctively into a roll through the soft grass as the impact jolts noticeably up her slightly battered legs.

 

Then, after rolling her neck a couple times to work out the kinks, she’s strutting off through the grassy lawn (dewy drops of condensation clinging to her bare feet and ankles) and pointedly ignoring FRIDAY’s judging tone as stands grumpily at the front door waiting impatiently for the AI to grant her entry.

 

(Internally, she regrets choosing the safer option—it’s quickly becoming evident that it would’ve been much more satisfactory for everyone had she just sucked it up and climbed the goddamned tree.)

 

Sighing as a trickle of blood runs down her cheek (probably from one of the many scrapes she got whilst flying through the branches and almost plummeting straight down to her death), she hastily makes her way up to Wanda’s bedroom, wanting to stop the girl before she does anything too stupid at the realization that she’s just thrown Natasha through her seven-story window.

 

She slips noiselessly into the room to find a rigorously hyperventilating Wanda Maximoff, the girl standing just before the shattered window (small shards of glass cover the carpet at her feet, glistening in the gentle glow of the moonlight), sobs wracking her tiny body—immediately Natasha is approaching her with a whispered “Wanda?”, not all that keen on a repeat of what had just occurred should she manage to startle the young witch, again.

 

Wanda whirls around, teary blue eyes wide and desperate in the moonlight.

 

(God, she’s beautiful, Natasha thinks.)

 

“N-Natasha?” Wanda gasps out through heaving breaths (her words more heavily accented than usual in her distress), her tone utterly disbelieving, like she’s not quite sure any of this is real.

 

“Can’t get rid of me that easily,” she quips with a shrug, and—

 

Oh.

 

Oh.

 

In the space of a second Wanda has thrown herself unceremoniously into Natasha’s arms, the witch's sobs quiet and broken against her collarbone—Natasha can hear the girl wailing out ragged apologies between heaving gasps of breath, whimpering “I’m sorry, Natasha, I’m so so sorry,” over and over again until Natasha’s heart hurts at the pain of it all.

 

“Hey, hey, hey,” Natasha coos, forcing the girl to stop talking even as Wanda sobs into her chest. “It’s okay. It’s okay, Wanda. It’s okay. You had a nightmare, hm?”

 

Still trembling, Wanda nods (though the sobs are slowly beginning to recede, Natasha notes with relief), her face remaining safely buried in Natasha’s collarbone, Natasha’s arms wrapped tightly around her.

 

“I’m sorry,” she mumbles, the muffled words ghosting warmly over Natasha’s skin.

 

“Shhh,” Natasha intones, tracing mindless patterns into the girl’s clothed back as she shudders. “It’s okay. It’s o—"

 

“It’s not,” Wanda sniffles, pulling back slightly—Natasha allows it, though she misses the warmth of her as the girl moves to stand just inches away, wet tear tracks glistening on her cheeks. “I-I… I hurt you.”

 

Natasha smiles even as blood trails further down her cheek, and she feels the warm wet liquid soaking through her tank. “I’m fine, Wanda. You’re not the first person to chuck me through a window, okay?”

 

Wanda bites her lip, looking rather doubtful and absolutely crushed—despite everything telling her she shouldn’t, Natasha longs to take that pain away from her.

 

“FRIDAY?” Wanda asks the ceiling hoarsely, and Natasha fights the urge to groan. “Tell me Natasha’s injuries.”

 

Natasha glares at the ceiling. “FRIDAY, don’t you dare—"

 

“Various minor contusions, mild to deep bruising in multiple places, a sprained wrist, broken toe, and a dislocated shoulder that Ms. Romanoff appears to have re-located herself just after the fall,” FRIDAY finishes smugly, and Natasha itches to throw something.

 

“Asshole,” she grumbles under her breath even as Wanda steps slightly back, horror apparent across her pretty features.

 

“I-I-I—" Wanda stammers, her voice shaking on every syllable. “You—I—“

 

“Wanda,” Natasha interrupts firmly, stepping closer. “I’m fine, okay?”

 

Wanda’s full-bodied trembling only worsens. “N-N-No, you n-n-need to g-go, I-I’m not safe I’m not safe I—“

 

“I’m not going anywhere, Wanda. I’m gonna stay here until you fall asleep, alright? You need sleep.”

 

Wanda’s lips part slightly, a forlorn look on her face. “B-But I hurt you.”

 

Natasha snorts easily. “Don’t flatter yourself, little witch,” she jibes, doing everything she can to put the girl more at ease. “Now, get into bed.”

 

The young witch looks horrifically torn but she ducks her head bashfully and obeys all the same, crawling tentatively back under the sheets and curling on her side to watch Natasha with watery blue eyes where the redhead stands just a few paces away from the bed, her green-eyed gaze gentle and patient.

 

“You-You’ll stay until I fall asleep?” Wanda asks then, sounding so lost and wholeheartedly defeated—it makes Natasha’s chest ache with sadness.

 

“Yes, Wanda,” she assures soothingly, moving to sit herself cross-legged upon the carpeted flooring, her scratched-up back resting gently against the sturdy wall behind her. “Until you fall asleep.”

 

A small and hesitant smile curves on Wanda’s features at that, and Natasha’s heart skips a beat.

 

“Okay,” she whispers into the darkness before allowing her pretty blue eyes to slide shut, consciously evening out her breaths in the late night (or early morning) of a new day, every flux and shift scrupulously observed under Natasha’s watchful eye—it takes the little witch an hour to fall asleep; Natasha is there and alert for every moment whilst she watches Wanda drift further and further into blissful oblivion, and for hours after that, unwilling to let the fragile young girl out of her sight.

 

Wanda does not stir, is not bothered by ghosts or nightmares throughout the night; rather, she sleeps soundly even while the sun peaks above horizon, as the amber light of a new dawn shines freely through the shattered window pane—and still, Natasha watches and waits, intent on keeping the young witch safe for some entirely inexplicable reason, one that settles deeply in her bones and warms her to the very core like nothing else ever has, one that scares her so so badly but also exhilarates her on a wholly unprecedented level no matter how insistently she wishes she didn’t have to feel it in the first place.

 

She doesn’t know what to call it, doesn’t quite know what it’s supposed to mean, but as Wanda shifts in her sleep, letting out tiny adorable snores into her pillow, Natasha thinks she might just have an inkling as to what it might be, and above all else, it means danger.

 

It means bad things for her, and probably worse things for Wanda; it makes Wanda Maximoff easily the most dangerous person in her life right now, and fuck if that isn’t the worst kind of revelation she’s had in a long while.

 

God, she’s screwed.

 

— —

Chapter Text

Wanda insists on personally stitching Natasha’s wounds, applying new bandages daily, and just overall fussing over her in a way Natasha can’t remember anyone ever doing—it’s unsettling above all else, of course, but there’s something else, too.

 

Something warmer, nicer.

 

Natasha loathes it.

 

Well, not actually… but it certainly makes her feel better to tell herself that she does.

 

She doesn’t know what to do with the prickles of warmth she feels building in her chest when Wanda rubs antibiotics at the small of her back, when she applies lotion to the ugly bruising around Natasha's right shoulder, when she treats Natasha like she’s something fragile even when they both know damn well that nothing could be further from the truth.

 

And still, Natasha obliges her.

 

She tells herself there’s a perfectly logical explanation for that, tells herself she’s doing it to make Wanda happy—but there’s more to it, too.

 

There’s a component about it all that makes her happy, makes her content, even though that’s never been a contrivance she’s placed much stock in (or any, really) since… well, since forever.

 

She’s not even 100% sure it’s ‘happiness’ or ‘contentedness’ she’s truly feeling, but she doesn’t quite know another word for the warmth that curls in her chest on every occasion with Wanda’s attentions solely on her, and she doesn’t know that it’d be all that productive for her to try looking for one, either.

 

But anyways.

 

She’s here, it’s something like 8 in the morning (amber sunlight streams through the now-mended glass of Wanda’s window pane), and Wanda is rubbing slow and deliberate circles into the mottled purple-and-green bruising on her shoulder with lotion-slick hands, a comfortable silence settling over the two of them where they sit cross-legged together upon Wanda’s rumpled bedspread.

 

It’s Wanda who eventually breaks the silence, her warm breath tickling the nape of Natasha’s neck: “Thank you.”

 

Natasha frowns to herself, willing herself not to tense against the gentle fingers stroking just beneath her shoulder blade. “For what?”

 

“Letting me do this. I know that you are just humoring me.”

 

Natasha feels a twinge of something like guilt in her chest even as Wanda’s hands on her back effect waves of serenity throughout her being—before she can think better of it, she’s responding, “It’s not that.”

 

Wanda’s silent for a moment, though her hands don’t halt their purposeful movements. “Then, what is it?”

 

“It’s difficult to describe,” Natasha says carefully, hyperconscious of her uncharacteristic candor but not at all willing to impede it.

 

Wanda hums, a heart-wrenchingly understanding note to her tone. “Will you try? For me?”

 

Natasha pauses. “Sure,” she decides eventually, already doing her best to think of the words—for Wanda, if not for herself. “You’re… different.”

 

“Different how?” Wanda asks, not missing a beat even as she continues her delicate ministrations.

 

Natasha lets a small sigh escape her, almost imperceptible—but enough that Wanda notices, her hands briefly stilling on Natasha’s lower back. “You’ve seen what’s in my head.”

 

“I have,” Wanda agrees neutrally, though she doesn’t give Natasha any more than that.

 

Natasha allows another sigh to escape her, suddenly glad she’s not facing Wanda at the current moment. “You know that I want you.”

 

“For a fuck?”

 

The words sound harsh falling from Wanda’s lips—out of place.

 

“Is that what you want?”

 

Wanda sighs. “Natasha.”

 

Natasha’s silent for a little while. “No,” she admits eventually. “For more.”

 

A moment later, Wanda’s ministrations cease, and she’s tapping on Natasha’s shoulder for her to turn around—without hesitation, Natasha does, sitting cross-legged and shirtless across from a pajama-clad Wanda, careful to keep her features unwaveringly neutral.

 

“I want you, too,” Wanda says quietly, almost shy, her blue eyes wide and earnest in the golden sunlight of morning as they search Natasha’s—though for what, Natasha isn’t quite sure.

 

Natasha just nods, not quite sure what to do about this newest development—and after a brief moment of contemplation, she allows it to show on her features, baring herself to Wanda in a fashion that just borders on unbearable.

 

“Where do we go from here?” she questions, keeping her tone even and relatively unaffected, even as she allows her features to tell an entirely different story.

 

Wanda bites her lip, unsure. “Will you stay with me tonight?”

 

After a second, Natasha nods. “Of course.”

 

A cross between relief and excitement flits across Wanda’s features and stays there—it makes Natasha’s heart skip a beat in her chest.

 

“Okay,” Wanda tells her gently, something innately content and fulfilled in her tone. “Want to go eat?”

 

Instantly, Natasha tilts her head at the girl, narrowing her gaze in playful suspicion. “You want me to make you pancakes, don’t you?”

 

Wanda flushes, still worrying her bottom lip adorably between her teeth. “Maybe?”

 

Natasha makes a point to heave a dramatic sigh, but slides off the mattress to stand all the same, flashing a still-sitting Wanda an exasperated but genuine quirk of her lips.

 

“I’ve killed people for less,” she quips, only half-joking, then leans to press a warm lingering kiss to Wanda's forehead, delighting in the sound of the girl’s breath hitching in her throat beneath her as she does. “You’re lucky I like you. C’mon.”

 

And with that, she turns on her heel to waltz swiftly out the room, knowing without a doubt that Wanda is following closely behind.

 

She passes Clint in the halls while Wanda scrambles to catch up, her partner flashing an infuriatingly knowing grin her way with a twinkle in his groggy blue eyes that has her itching to break his nose—but then Wanda is bouncing over to match Natasha’s strides with a sunny grin and suddenly she can’t possibly care less about the muffled snort she hears from his retreating figure or the apprehension curdling in her chest at the prospect of doing… this with Wanda for real; suddenly, all that matters is the cautious but carefree smile on Wanda’s beautiful face, the hope in her ocean-blue eyes, and the things that Natasha can do to keep them there indefinitely, because really, there isn’t a thing that can cause her harm in this world if she can just manage that.

 

And she intends to.

 

— —

 

“So, how’s it going?” Clint ventures to ask, his voice annoyingly smug while they’re shooting side-by-side at the gun ranges (with a specially cordoned-off section for archery).

 

Natasha doesn’t turn to look at him, doesn’t move a single muscle as she buries the rest of the clip into the gaping hole marring her standard-issue card-stock target.

 

(Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang!

 

Bang!)

 

“Fine,” she answers tightly after the final shot, unflinching under his knowing leer as she rapidly reloads the .45 ACP pistol in her grip, taking a small comfort in the metallic click! of the next magazine slotting neatly into place.

 

“Aw, c’mon, Tash,” he whines, and there’s a neat thwack! that sounds as his arrow finds the target with devastating accuracy. “You asked her out, didn’t you?”

 

Bang! “Why does it matter?”

 

She can practically feel her partner rolling his eyes at her.

 

“‘Cause I care about you—duh.” Thwack! Thwack! "So, did you?”

 

Natasha sighs imperceptibly, but Clint notices. She knows he does. Bang! “No.”

 

She waits for another thwack!, but it never comes.

 

“Then, what was the whole deal this morning?”

 

Bang! Bang! Natasha rolls her eyes. Bang! “There was no deal.”

 

“Tashaaaa,” he whines petulantly, and Natasha’s lips quirk.

 

“Keep shooting, bird boy.” Bang!

 

“Fine.” Thwack! Thwack! “Did you tell her you wanna lesbian together?”

 

“Phrase it like that again, and I’ll kill you in your sleep.” Bang! Bang! She grabs the last of the clips on her waist, reloading with expeditious efficiency. Click!

 

Thwack! Thwack! Clint gasps audibly even as he continues burying arrows in a perfect cluster around the bullseye of his target. Thwack! “You totally did, didn’t you?”

 

Natasha fights the urge to roll her eyes again. Bang! Bang! Bang! “We’re figuring it out,” is what she settles on eventually, the words purposefully cryptic—she knows very well how bitterly it annoys Clint when she does that.

 

Clint groans, and she listens absentmindedly to the sounds of him setting his bow aside and turning to face her with a pointed look. Bang!

 

“I’m asking for details on your love life, not nuclear launch codes.”

 

Natasha resists the urge to roll her eyes. “Delta, niner, zero, x-ray—“

 

“Tasha.”

 

“Hm?”

 

“I—" Clint halts himself, face scrunched in thought. "Wait, are those really—”

 

Bang! Natasha smirks, eyes still steady on her target (—well, what’s left of it, anyhow). “Wouldn’t you like to know?”

 

Clint pouts childishly for a moment, then relaxes his expression a second later, cerulean eyes wide and curious. “Just tell me, Nat—you’re letting her in, yeah?”

 

Natasha bites her lip, then sets the .45 down (still with three bullets left in the round), turning to face her partner beside her who has done the same, his compound bow resting but not by any measure forgotten on the metal counter.

 

“Yeah,” she breathes out eventually, her voice quiet, like it’s a secret. (And in a way, it kind of is.) “Yeah, I am.”

 

Instantly, Clint breaks into a grin, visceral excitement written all over his boyish features—she’ll never admit it, but it causes something warm and undoubtedly pleasant to settle deep in her chest. “Good.”

 

— —

Chapter Text

Natasha sleeps in Wanda’s bed for a night, and almost instantly, she knows it’s a mistake.

 

She knows it’s a mistake as Wanda curls up tightly against her, her warm (adorable) puffs of breath eventually evening out, the heat of her slender body steadily seeping into Natasha as the minutes pass and they remain delightfully intertwined beneath the sheets.

 

She knows it’s a mistake, because her wrist aches for the cool and familiar sting of the metal cuffs she’s left in her bedside table for the night just down the hall, and her brain shrieks with vengeful reminiscence that sets every nerve in her being painfully on edge (it’s something of a miracle that Wanda’s formidable neuro-electric powers haven’t picked up on her severe psychological unrest at the current moment); and, no matter how entirely precious Wanda looks resting unperturbed upon her bare collarbone, or the sheer amount of comfort Natasha takes from the pleasant sensation of Wanda’s stable exhales ghosting over her skin, or even the warmth that blooms in her chest at the knowledge that Wanda is here, with Natasha, trusting her enough to fall asleep entangled so intimately with Natasha’s restless limbs… it’s not enough.

 

Which isn’t Wanda’s fault, or Madame B.’s, or really anyone's but her own—and so, she remains silent; motionless under the solid weight of Wanda’s willowy frame, determined not to allow her own trivial misgivings to trouble Wanda for even the most infinitesimal of moments.

 

Because, this? This is exactly what she wanted—what she’s wanted for a very long time, ever since the first instance upon which they truly met (again, the shipyard doesn’t exactly ‘count'), and Natasha caught a glimpse of those devastatingly deep sea-blue eyes and she knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that she would never be the same.

 

And, as for the issue of 'sleeping’—well, Natasha’s sleep cycle is irregular at best, and she’s most certainly no stranger to long stretches of consciousness fueled primarily by sheer force of will: 36 hours, 72… 96.

 

So, really, maybe this isn't such a mistake after all—because Natasha can do this; she knows she can.

 

What’s more, she wants to.

 

(More than she’s ever wanted anything else before in her life.)

 

— —

 

It all falls apart on a Monday.

 

(Truthfully, Natasha’s still rather unsure as to why exactly she thought her blatant executive dysfunction as a human being might end any other way.)

 

It’s the tail end of November in New York, blankets of fleece-white snow beginning to fall intermittently for hours at a time, and for Natasha, that means one thing—the anniversary of Nadia’s death.

 

More specifically, the anniversary of Natasha—Natalia’s first kill; and, of course, because the Red Room weren’t proponents for anything shy of outright inhumanity, it had to be someone she knew.

 

It had to be Nadia.

 

(It had to be someone whose death would break her.)

 

Natasha was eight or nine, she thinks; Nadia was around the same.

 

They were friends, back in the beginning… back when Natasha didn't know any better than to place her trust in such childish and exploitative attachments.

 

She remembers everything about that day, even amidst the unintelligible profusion of falsified recollection that plagues her relentlessly throughout each day—strained gasps filling her ears as she crushed the exposed windpipe of the girl she called friend, the sickening thump of Nadia’s heartbeat slowing beneath her palm, the light that Natalia watched rapidly fading from bright-blue eyes when it finally stopped.

 

At the end of it all, she supposes that it’s true what they say (even if her slanted adaptation is admittedly somewhat morbid): you never really forget your first.

 

Because maybe it’s morbid, but that doesn’t make it any less true—there she stands, 23:39 on the 29th of November, lighting a worn-down candle in a barren Catholic church off the streets Downing and Bleecker, as if she doesn’t know damn well (and has for a while) that there’s no one up there who gives a damn about the nine-year-old Nadia who never got to grow up, much less the jaded and weary monster who killed her.

 

And, of course, she’s not asking for forgiveness—she’d never be so foolish as to pursue such a blatantly unattainable respite (whether it’s an illusion, or not); she knows very well she can’t be forgiven.

 

(Honestly, she’s not quite sure she wants to be.)

 

But she’s there just the same, because it doesn’t feel right to lounge around the Tower and cuddle with Wanda and poke fun at Clint like she always does; it doesn’t feel right to have family tonight—not when Nadia never did, not when Natalia had a personal stake in sealing her deplorable fate, not when Nadia died under the bloodstained hands of the only one she’d ever dared to call ‘friend.’

 

No, Natasha may be selfish and gruesome and monstrous—but tonight, she isn’t.

 

Tonight, she sits in silence upon the wooden church pews and watches the lone candle burn before her and prays silently that if there’s a heaven up there, Nadia’s found it, even if Natasha knows damn well she won’t be joining her—especially since Natasha knows damn well she won’t be joining her.

 

Tonight, she atones, even if it doesn’t make a lick of difference. (She knows it never will.)

 

Tonight, she tells Nadia that she’s sorry, again and again and again until her words break down, until the heavy Slavic accent she worked for so long to conceal seeps back into her words, until all that’s left is a meaningless procession of broken Russian whispered quietly into the all-encompassing silence around her, the candle burning low and the chapel shrouding itself in darkness and a cold feeling curling in her chest with every moment she forces herself mercilessly to remember.

 

She stays there uninterrupted for a long time, having left her phone back in the tower atop Wanda’s nightstand, the pleasant scent of the burning wick perusing the quiet atmosphere, bitter thoughts of Nadia oscillating ceaselessly throughout her weary brain; she stays there for a long time, and she is not disturbed… nor is she forgiven.

 

Funnily enough, it seems that that ever-infamous sentiment indeed rings true: there really is no rest for the wicked.

 

— —

Chapter Text

They're less than a third of the way through December, Natasha hasn’t spoken to Wanda since the day she left to mourn Nadia at the church, and she can tell Wanda is angry—well, actually, she’d probably bypassed ‘angry’ about five days ago, and had since transitioned into something infinitely worse: sadness.

 

She doesn’t smile at Natasha like she used to, doesn’t show up for Avenger ‘family nights’ nearly as often (or ever, really), doesn’t look at Natasha with that precious affectionate twinkle in her bright blue eyes—in fact, she doesn’t look at Natasha at all, if she can help it.

 

It stings—no, that’s an understatement.

 

It fucking hurts.

 

There’s a ring of purplish bruising around Natasha's left wrist, and thin scabs adorning her right where she’d struggled too hard one night against the cuffs and had awoken to find a modest pool of blood staining her pillow; she hasn’t slept in three days, and it’s been far too long since she’s felt the safety of Wanda’s touch warming her skin, promising tenderness and bringing comfort and effortlessly softening the sharpened ache in her chest to something of a dull roar.

 

She misses it—misses her.

 

She knows it’s foolish, knows it’s probably better this way—but, still, she misses Wanda, misses her like Natasha had never known she could yearn so intently after another, like she’s drowning with every passing moment, water filling her burning lungs and blackness dancing around the edges of her vision, and Wanda is the only thing that might let her breathe again.

 

She talks to Clint about it, then instantly regrets it because he won’t stop grinning smugly at her like she knows something and nudging her in the ribs like she knows it, too and loudly singing (off-key, mind you), “Tasha’s in looooooo-oooooo-ooooooo-oooooove! ” all across the Tower until she eventually loses her composure and attacks him full-force in one of the common areas, resulting in a pitifully whiny Clint, throwing knives embedded in the upholstery, and a very unamused Pepper Potts telling them off for daring to be so reckless in her (not Tony’s) building.

 

Then, the two of them feeling properly chastised, they sink side-by-side down into the last (relatively) unharmed couch, identical looks of bewilderment on both their faces.

 

“You should talk to Wanda,” Clint says eventually, thereby breaking the silence, and Natasha feels like punching him. Again.

 

Instead, she heaves a sigh, deciding for a rare show of honesty: “She hates me.”

 

“No, she doesn’t.”

 

“Does, too.”

 

“Does not.”

 

“Does.”

 

Not.”

 

“Doe—"

 

“Tash, c’mon,” Clint interjects pointedly, turning to face her with a pleading look in his eyes.

 

Natasha stares straight ahead, stubbornly refusing to meet his gaze. “Stop looking at me like that.”

 

“Like what?”

 

“You know.”

 

“Do I?” he questions incredulously, and Natasha whirls around to fix him with a hard glare.

 

“Look,” she begins furiously, irritation rising in her tone. “I screwed up, okay?”

 

Clint just nods emphatically. “Exactly!” he exclaims. “You screwed up—"

 

“You’re not helping.”

 

Clint rolls his eyes. “I’m agreeing with you, alright? Yes, you screwed up, but it doesn’t have to be for good—"

 

“Your idealism is nauseating."

 

“When’s the last time you slept?”

 

Her gaze narrows. “What?”

 

“You heard me.”

 

Natasha clenches her jaw. “Why does that matter?”

 

“I’ll bet it was a couple weeks ago, when you and Wanda were still good.”

 

“So what if it was?” Natasha snaps, feeling the dull telltale throb of a headache beginning to set in.

 

Clint’s silent for a long moment.

 

“It means you care,” he reasons eventually, his tone quiet—it hits Natasha like a ton of bricks.

 

Still, she shakes her head ruefully, unwilling to let her feelings get the best of her—not now. (Maybe not ever.)

 

“And what if I do? It’s not like it makes a difference.”

 

“Tasha, you love her, and you think that doesn’t make a difference?”

 

“Love is for children,” she counters coldly, robotically (as more of a reflex than anything else), turning her gaze resolutely downcast, ignoring the chill that goes down her spine at the mere thought of loving Wanda… at the mere possibility that maybe, just maybe, she already does.

 

She sees Clint shake his head out of her periphery. “You’re wrong. They’re wrong.”

 

Natasha chuckles bitterly, shaking her head. “They were wrong about a lot of things, but I don’t think that was one of them."

 

“Am I weak because I love Phil?”

 

Natasha lets out a slow exhale. “Do you really want me to answer that?”

 

Clint sighs. “Nat, you’ve seen what I’m like when Phil and I fight… I can’t focus; I can’t shoot; I can’t be… whatever everyone’s relying on me to be when we’re not okay.”

 

Natasha bites her lip, remaining silent—she knows damn well he has a point, even if she doesn’t want to admit it.

 

“And, you know, maybe you’re right—maybe I am weak for loving him,” he pauses, hands fiddling idly in his lap. “But I’m better, too, okay? And I know you’ve seen it; I know you know that, too.”

 

They don’t talk for a little while, after that—a minute passes, and then two, and Natasha knows Clint’s not going to bail her out. Not this time.

 

“What if she doesn’t forgive me?” Natasha whispers out after a while, voice trembling and scared, gaze still persistently fixed upon the floor between her feet.

 

She feels Clint scooting closer, hears him let out a sigh, allows him to wrap her shoulders in a one-armed embrace. “That’s not up to you, Tash,” he murmurs eventually, and she feels like breaking. “But you owe it to her to try.”

 

He’s right, unfortunately—what’s worse, she knows it.

 

She knows it as she buries her face in the crook of his neck, knows it as he rubs her back in soothing circles and tells her that everything’s going to be okay—knows that he might be wrong about this, that this might not end up okay, but that she has to deal with it anyhow, whatever the outcome.

 

It’s fucking terrifying.

 

— —

Chapter Text

Considering their apparent penchant for meeting exclusively at entirely unreasonable hours of the night (see Fig. 1, their 3:00am rendezvous in the kitchen over chamomile tea in which Natasha had selfishly bared her emotions, thereby begetting a whole roller-coaster of unfettered emotion she was not, and is not, prepared in the slightest to be dealing with; and Fig. 2, Wanda hex-blasting Natasha out of her seven-story window at a quarter to 2:00am, which ultimately resulted in Natasha watching over the young witch throughout the night as she slept, effecting a sort of terrifying intimacy she’d never known with anyone else before), she doesn’t think she should be surprised, necessarily, that their next encounter occurs somewhere around half past two in the morning (2:21am, last Natasha checked) in the common area of the seventh floor.

 

Wanda sits cross-legged, prim and proper upon one end of the plush burgundy couch when Natasha approaches with two steaming cups of chamomile tea; the Sokovian girl’s long brown hair is pulled up into a messy bun atop her head, a few loose hazelnut strands framing her pretty face, blue-green eyes wide and mesmerizing as they sparkle in the dim lighting.

 

She’s wearing another graphic band tee—Green Day, this time—and tiny black shorts that have ridden up obscenely around smooth milky-pale thighs, her hands twisting anxiously in her lap (chipped nails each neatly painted a charming matte-black), silver rings glinting in the soft yellowy light.

 

She looks beautiful.

 

Natasha doesn’t speak as she gently sets both tea-filled mugs upon the coffee table, doesn’t break the strained silence as she curls up next to Wanda upon the couch, situating herself to face the young witch even if Wanda still stubbornly faces forwards.

 

After a long moment, she sighs, her gaze downcast.

 

“I’m sorry,” she apologizes quietly, sincerely, her expression wrought with honest contrition.

 

Wanda doesn’t reply.

 

“Wanda, please,” she implores; she has to fight the urge to flinch as Wanda whirls around to face her, blazing anger in her eyes.

 

“What, Natasha?” she snaps, a heart-wrenchingly tired note to her tone that doesn’t quite match the unadulterated rage burning in her gaze.

 

Natasha swallows, not quite knowing what to say now that she has the Sokovian girl’s attentions upon her. “I… I’m sorry.”

 

Wanda’s eyes flash dangerously.

 

“Sorry for what, Natasha?” she questions, the exhaustion rapidly fading from her voice in favor of a biting steely quality that has Natasha’s heart clenching painfully in her chest. “What are you sorry for? Bec—”

 

“For leaving,” Natasha cuts her off placidly, features pinched with guilt.

 

Wanda rolls her eyes, though the action itself is… half-hearted, almost. Not entirely genuine in its dismissive nature.

 

(Natasha feels a prickle of hope surging through her chest at that.)

 

“I shouldn’t have cut you off like that,” she continues earnestly, desperate (more desperate than she’s been in a very long time) to make Wanda understand. “Not without explaining myself first.”

 

Wanda sighs quietly, before reluctantly shifting herself to properly face Natasha, flitting her searching gaze up and down until—

 

She gasps, her eyes landing upon the ugly mottled purple-and-black bruising encircling Natasha’s right wrist, the battered skin riddled in various places with dried trickles of crimson blood.

 

Shit.

 

“N-Natasha,” she murmurs, all trace of anger and hesitancy forgotten, her hand tentatively reaching out for a moment before she hastily pulls it back, as if unsure whether or not she's allowed to touch her.

 

Natasha swallows thickly but doesn’t make a move to hide the injury, instead reaching out with her unmarred left hand to grasp Wanda’s tightly in her own, a small sigh of contentment escaping her when Wanda doesn’t flinch away or protest against it.

 

“Don’t worry about it,” she whispers gently, a silent plea in her words.

 

Wanda shakes her head emphatically, clearly unwilling to skip over it like Natasha so obviously wishes to.

 

“What… What happened?”

 

Natasha sighs, knowing Wanda’s earned a degree of honesty from her.

 

(And furthermore, she knows damn well she’ll offer it up anyhow without a fight the second Wanda asks—that’s just how far gone she is for this girl, and has been since Day 1.)

 

“I, um… I have trouble sleeping, sometimes. You know… Nightmares.” A hollow laugh bubbles out of her at that (though she’s not quite sure what’s funny), but Wanda doesn’t return it with a smile, and neither does she. “Back in the Red Room, they used to handcuff us to our beds at night. It made sure we couldn’t escape, obviously, but since they started it when we were all so young… it was more symbolic, than anything. A learned behavior. Even when we got older, and we knew exactly how to get out of them, we didn’t dare try it.” Natasha bites her lip then, examining the dried blood and bruising upon her wrist in the relative darkness with almost clinical indifference even as the almost sacred feeling of their hands intertwined with one another effects poignant tingles of invigorating warmth that ripple throughout her body from head to toe in an utterly divine sensation she can’t help basking in for a moment or two, even if it is tragically fleeting in its brevity.

 

“It’s fucked up, and I know it is, but one of the first things I did after defecting to S.H.I.E.L.D., once I’d finally earned the freedom to sleep in my own room, was nick a pair of handcuffs from the 7th-floor inventory. I knew it was a bad habit, that it made me vulnerable while I slept—I knew that then, and I know that now. I worked for a while to make myself stop… and, I did, for a while. But, um… lately, I guess I just… "

 

“Is it because of me?” Wanda asks tentatively, a hurt quality to her tone that Natasha immediately scrambles to ease—she won’t have Wanda blaming herself for Natasha's own mistakes. Not now. Not ever.

 

“No, Wanda. No, it’s—" she halts her urgent speech, relaxing her features until Wanda can see the sincerity in her expression without the need to doubt it for even the briefest of moments. “It’s my fault. I—A couple weeks back, I—" she stops herself again, growing frustrated even as a more preferable semblance of an idea begins to form in her mind. “I think… maybe… it’s better if I show you.”

 

Wanda’s brow furrows. “Show me what?”

 

“You’ll see,” Natasha replies, already moving to stand beside the couch, her left hand still clasped firmly with Wanda’s right. “C’mon, let’s get you some shoes. I’ll drive.”

 

— —

Chapter Text

It’s strange, walking there together (the car parked just a couple blocks down, because even Avengers have to deal with the unadulterated pandemonium that is finding somewhere to park in New York City)—it’s strange, because she’s not alone.

 

Every step takes them closer to Nadia (well, what’s left of her anyhow), to the nebulous ghost of a tiny little girl Natasha hasn’t shared with anyone (not even Clint), to a long-suffering ritual of loss and grief and shame in an abandoned chapel that Natasha has always protected with more tenacity than she ever has her own life.

 

She doesn’t belong there, she knows, standing amidst the chipped wooden pews and numerous copies of King James’ Bibles with yellowed pages and the over-sized wooden cross mounted upon the far wall that seems to perpetually mock her every time she stumbles upon the audacity to make her yearly visits; she doesn’t belong there, but Nadia does, and that’s why it’s sacred, even if Natasha probably wouldn’t know the definition of ‘sacred’ if it came up and smacked her squarely in the face.

 

(She can’t really blame the mounted cross for alienating her as it does.)

 

And yet, if there’s anyone Natasha wants to show… it’s Wanda. Without a doubt.

 

They’re almost eerily silent as they walk, but Natasha’s grateful for it just the same—there’s a sort of peace in the quiet similitude of their matching strides, the way their boots crunch in time over the freshly-fallen snow, how every warm exhale forms lungfuls of wispy fog in the freezing night.

 

Wanda’s wearing tight blue jeans and a black blouse with a light army-green winter coat to keep her warm, along with a dark knitted beanie atop orangey-auburn locks that tumble gloriously down her shoulders—it reminds Natasha rather vividly of Edinburgh, where she and Steve had arrived to find Proxima Midnight and Co. on a single-minded mission to apprehend Vision and retrieve the Mind Stone, even if that meant killing both Wanda and Vision in the process.

 

Wanda had looked so beautiful then: a shallow cut tracing her brow, both cheeks flushed pink with adrenaline, lurid red energy enveloping slender hands that worked almost hypnotically to effect her will—God, how Natasha had wanted her.

 

It’s almost worse, now… now that Natasha innately knows her cinnamon-y scent from nights spent tangled in bed together, and the syllables upon which her Sokovian accent reappears (even if her syntax has become much more American-ized as of late), and the things she can do to make her smile that beautiful smile of hers, the one Natasha constantly yearns to see.

 

Now, it’s real—it’s real, and Wanda looks entirely magnificent, and Natasha’s finding it rather hard to breathe with someone she cares for so deeply staying at her side in a way no one else ever has before.

 

God, she’s screwed.

 

It feels like all too soon that they’re there, standing upon the sleet-covered sidewalk just before the tall set of creaky old wooden doors, glistening snowflakes descending from the darkened night sky above—Wanda looks beautiful, Natasha thinks, with tiny flakes of silvery-white snow twinkling in her wavy auburn locks, wide blue-green eyes sparkling under the faint pearly glow of the waxing moon overhead…. Christ, Natasha wants to kiss her.

 

But, instead, she steps forward and pries open the antiquated wooden door with a grating screech, willing her cold-reddened fingers not to tremble as she holds it open and gestures for Wanda to enter.

 

(She’s always prided herself on exercising near impeccable restraint, even in the most trying of predicaments.)

 

Wordlessly, Wanda does, thought there’s a sort of apprehension present upon her gorgeous features, one that Natasha knows means she wants to say something, but can’t quite figure out how (or if) she should say it.

 

Natasha slips in afterwards, and the two of them walk side by side down the abandoned aisle, their footfalls echoing loudly around the hallowed space—even with the pair of them in boots (Natasha’s wedge heels almost an inch taller than Wanda’s), Natasha’s still a good inch or two shorter than Wanda; she likes that, she decides.

 

Height isn’t something she often pays attention to—at least, not in a context that doesn’t involve fights and conflict and the best way to go about incapacitating her adversaries with respect to their physical stature.

 

But, in a reflexive and instinctual kind of sense, Natasha has never liked being 5’3” (~160cm)—because, maybe she’s not egregiously undersized, but, at the same time, she’s shorter than her opponents quite a lot more often than not.

 

And, logically, she knows that that doesn’t make much of a difference—if anything, in most cases, a substantial difference in height is something she immediately pinpoints as an area of weakness, as something to be exploited in order to successfully complete her objective of terminating the target in question (though, admittedly, that’s more relevant to her past, when she worked as a deadly assassin on the KGB’s payroll) or merely incapacitating them (what the greater majority of her most recent missions with S.H.I.E.L.D. have required).

 

But, still, it’s entirely spontaneous and beyond her control (as so few things are), the discontented feeling she gets at being smaller than her opponents; even with her friends, it gives her some cause for concern, whether it’s warranted or not.

 

Steve Rogers, for example—it’s not that she doesn’t trust him…. well, actually, that is precisely the issue when concerning the world-renowned Captain America, if she’s being perfectly honest.

 

She trusts him to a certain degree, of course… but, truthfully, she thinks that her capacity for ceding any sort of absolute trust in another, no matter how noble and benevolent they’ve proven themselves to be, was lost a very long time ago.

 

(She doubts she’ll ever get it back.)

 

Whenever they embarked on missions together (once Clint had placed one foot out the door of S.H.I.E.L.D. and into retirement with Laura and the kids), Natasha couldn’t help but size him up every time, even as she knew he was on her side (not to mention, not nearly complex enough in the duplicity department to be hiding much, if anything, from her), and that he probably already trusted her a hell of a lot more than he should.

 

(More than anyone ever should, really.)

 

In all their fights, she catalogued every weak spot along with his wide-eyed examination of her (that, predictably, was severely lacking in any remote kind of subtlety)—even after Ultron, and Wakanda, she watched him carefully (though surreptitiously enough that he would never know it) along with every one else on the team; after everything, trust was not a given, and it never would be. Not with her.

 

She doesn’t trust herself, either; though, she thinks that that’s probably more of an inevitable byproduct of having common sense than anything else.

 

So, it’s strange, she thinks, to walk alongside Wanda and allow herself to feel smaller—more importantly, to allow herself to feel something dangerously akin to security as she does so.

 

But, either way, she doesn’t ponder that for very long, because, a short moment later, they’ve reached the altar, rows of chipped and battered wooden pews in their wake (28 exactly, she knows—but, she always counts each and every one when she visits; it’s… comforting, in a way. Habitual).

 

Without a word, Natasha leads Wanda off to the right, where, at the bottom of the steps, there stands a smaller oakwood tabernacle (about waist-height) littered with various burn marks and housing a neat array of small circular candles: 32 exactly (4 x 8), by Natasha’s count.

 

It’s dark, still, but Natasha’s eyes have since adjusted to it, and she suspects Wanda’s have, as well.

 

They stand there for a short spell, side by side, Natasha’s faraway gaze fixed upon the display of burnt-out wicks in solid taupe-white wax even whilst she can feel Wanda silently watching her all the while.

 

Eventually, she takes a single wooden match from the glazed clay pot sitting just off to the side atop the podium, already having dug a blue plastic cigarette lighter out of her pocket (the match box’s red phosphorous strip nowhere to be seen); wordlessly, with the weight of Wanda’s stare still unwaveringly upon her, she lights the bud of crimson sulfur and watches it ignite before reaching out to light the candle on the very bottom right—the one she always uses, apparent by the sordid state of the blackened wick and the significantly lower dip of its beige-colored wax in comparison to its 31 counterparts.

 

It takes a while to light (she knows it will), but, after a good 10 seconds or so of keeping the flickering teardrop of her yellowy flame firmly against the wick (what’s left of it, anyhow), it lights, and she withdraws the matchstick, waving it twice through the frosty air to extinguish the heated flare that burns steadily down towards her fingers.

 

She pockets the lighter, too, as something of an afterthought.

 

“I come here every year at the end of November,” she speaks quietly into the darkness, delicately setting the burnt matchstick aside, a tiny elongated wisp of white-grey smoke rising up into the chilled air. “And, I light this candle for Nadia.”

 

Wanda’s silent for a moment, the two of them simply watching in comfortable stillness over the quivering flame, its essence contained within a cloudy round-ish glass to protect it. “Nadia?”

 

Natasha bites her lower lip, both trembling hands finding their way back into her coat pockets and tightening into taut fists, the plastic of the lighter cold against the knuckles of her right hand.

 

“She’s the first person I ever killed.” Wanda turns to her and inhales sharply at that, but Natasha continues, forcing her expression to remain neutral: “I was 8 or 9, I think, at the time. She was around that age, as well. She was… she was my only friend in the Red Room, before I knew how dangerous that could be… Before I knew the consequences of caring.”

 

She exhales slowly, still watching the fulgurating light of the candle, Wanda’s gentle-eyed gaze upon her.

 

“She was beautiful. She had these wide bright-blue eyes, and hair that was so light and blonde, I remember I thought she didn’t have eyebrows the first time we met,” Natasha murmurs with a chuckle, even if it is more than slightly bitter. “She was strong, and quick, just like me. The instructors always paired us up to spar together.”

 

“One day during another of our spars, I made a mistake—I lunged too heavily to throw a punch, and Nadia dodged it, just like we were trained to. In doing so, I left myself exposed, unprotected; but, she didn’t… she didn’t make me pay for it,” Natasha recalls numbly, eyes glazing over as she allows the bitter memory to overtake her. “She had an open shot to the left side of my head, which was still bleeding pretty badly, because another girl in our class, Katya, had caught me unawares with a brass-knuckled right hook a couple days ago. I remember I was pretty sure the wound was infected, and, when I showed it to Nadia that night while we were cuffed to our beds, she agreed."

 

She pauses, clenching her jaw against the sheer anguish cresting in her gut.

 

"And, honestly… it might’ve killed me, taking another hit in the same place so soon after I’d weathered such a heavy blow from Katya. I think Nadia knew that, and, she hesitated.” Natasha stops herself, shaking her head almost imperceptibly as she stares down the single burning flame. “She hesitated, because she didn’t want to kill me. But, Madame B. saw, and the next day, the instructors woke all of us at dawn to gather down at the training mats. They didn’t tell us what was happening, but I remember having this nauseous feeling in my gut that said it wasn’t going to be good.”

 

She pauses, taking a moment to gather herself and letting out a shaky breath, one she doesn’t bother concealing (even though she very well could)—because, this isn’t about hiding herself. Not anymore. (Even if it’s ugly.)

 

“They had Nadia and me stand across from one another in the center of that mats, and congregated all the other girls to stand around and watch—then, they said we were going to fight… except, this time, one of us wasn’t coming out of it alive,” she recounts in a detached tone, then finally turns to her right to meet Wanda’s soft and debilitating blue-green eyes illuminated by the faint lambency of the lone candle, all her corruption and depravity laid bare for the taller woman to see.

 

“I killed her that day,” Natasha says, her words hoarse and rough, wrought with guilt—even the mere inches of space between the two of them can’t save her now, and what’s more, she knows it. “I put my hands around her throat and squeezed until her heart stopped beating, because I was afraid to die. I didn’t even really think about the fact that she might be afraid, too, not until after I watched her go. After I made her go.”

 

She sighs heavily then, knowing there has to be a point here, a latent purpose beneath the abomination she’s finally shown herself to be: “Look, Wanda, I… I’m sorry for disappearing, okay? I really, really am,” she starts, looking Wanda directly in the eye to let her know that Natasha means that, to make her understand the immeasurably-saturated sincerity that’s currently clawing at her insides as if trying to quite literally tear her apart. “But, maybe… Maybe it’s better that I did. I’m not… I’m not a good person, and I never really have been, and—"

 

“Stop,” Wanda interjects quietly, tears welling in her beautiful blue-green eyes, and Natasha feels something splintering in her chest at the sight of it. “S-Stop saying that.”

 

Natasha furrows a brow, resisting the urge to shiver as she feels Wanda’s warm breath ghosting across her nose.

 

“Wanda, I’m trying to tell you that—"

 

She stops herself this time as Wanda’s palm cups her jaw, cold fingers and colder rings grazing deftly against the skin there—really, she isn’t sure she could’ve spoken if she’d tried, because Wanda’s face is inches from hers, those watery sea-blue eyes dotted with verdant green looking almost fondly down at her, reverence and adoration and something Natasha thinks might just be love laid gloriously unhidden in every crease of her smooth features, cheeks tinged with a rosy-pink flush, beautiful ruby-red lips slightly parted in the most breathtaking of ways.

 

It’s not often Natasha is taken by surprise—in fact, it never happens, not anymore.

 

But, Wanda leans in and presses her warm lips gently against Natasha’s, and suddenly, she isn’t quite sure she’s not dreaming, even if her dreams have never been anywhere near this exquisite since… well, since forever, really. And, maybe she’s not surprised, per se, but she’s pretty damn close, and that’s something of an anomaly in and of itself.

 

(Either way, though, she isn’t sure there was anything she could’ve done to prepare herself for this, to prevent the utter divinity of it all from expanding so rapidly in her chest until it physically hurts to endure.)

 

Suddenly, she doesn’t feel like a trespasser in this holy place, in this house of God, because Wanda’s slightly-cold fingers are stroking lazily at the heated skin of her jaw, and their lips are pressed together in the softest of kisses, and gradually, Natasha can feel her clenched fists unfurling in the pockets of her jacket, the self-hatred and guilt and shame melting into the background until all she knows is Wanda and her cinnamon-y scent and that inexplicably heaven-sent feeling of their lips joined in an achingly tender kiss for the very first time.

 

It’s unlike anything Natasha has ever known.

 

It’s like… magic, even if she knows she sounds positively nonsensical (not to mention naïve, which is something Natasha has never been known to play victim to) in saying so.

 

Wanda kisses her for the very first time in a Catholic church around half-past three in the morning, and Natasha feels… holy, in some strange way.

 

(Or, at least, as close as she’ll ever get, anyhow.)

 

Wanda kisses her, and Natasha knows then and there that it’s the most profoundly sublime thing she’s ever known (and, undoubtedly, the most profoundly sublime thing that she ever will know for the rest of her days).

 

Wanda kisses her, and Natasha knows that this is love.

 

— —